It’s been a while since I’ve posted on here, thanks to university deadlines amongst other things, however I handed in my final piece of work for a while (thank god) this week so I’m free to go back to writing about something I actually enjoy, the NFL!
Last week was wild, and will go down in history as one of the best Divisional Play-off weekends ever. Although the Patriots handled the Texans pretty comfortably the other three games were nail biters and saw both sublime (Colin Kaepernick) and ridiculous (Rahim Moore) play. On the AFC side of the ball Baltimore will meet New England after they won a six-quarter thriller against Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos. It means that Ray Lewis can continue his long and irritating farewell tour for at least another week, and having already pitted wits against Manning Lewis will now get the opportunity to eliminate Tom Brady from the play-offs. Here’s an in depth preview of what promises to be a titanic clash at Gillette Stadium Sunday night:
Baltimore Ravens (10-6) @ New England Patriots (12-4), AFC Championship game 6:30 ET
Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and the Patriots have now reached the AFC Championship game in seven of the last twelve seasons. Just digest that for a minute. In a league of parity where there is a strict salary cap and a draft system geared towards helping the ‘have not’s’ of the NFL world New England has flat out beaten the system since the turn of the century. Of course Baltimore have been pretty successful themselves, and they’re back in the same spot they were last season when they lost to the Patriots in this round. This weekend may be a rematch between the same two teams but Baltimore in particular are a far different team to this time last year. Having once been a defensive team that suffocated high flying attacks the Ravens have transformed into an offensive force to be reckoned with thanks to stud running back Ray Rice, speedy wide receiver Torrey Smith and maturing quarterback Joe Flacco. New England on the other hand are a similar unit to the team that lost to the New York Giants in Superbowl XLVI last February. The defense has improved, granted, but the offense remains the well oiled machine it has always been with Tom Brady pulling the strings.
When Baltimore has the ball..
One of the things pundits and analysts always cite when they discuss beating the Patriots is the ability to keep Tom Brady off the field. This means you have to have a dominant running or short passing game and the ability to sustain long drives. Baltimore does have an elite RB in Ray Rice but puzzlingly the team often fails to give him the touches he deserves. Coach John Harbaugh has to correct this on Sunday and feed the ball to the little man from Rutgers. Vince Wilfork could have a key role to play as the Patriots standout nose tackle and the Ravens offensive line will have their hands full keeping the 350 pound man from suffocating the comparatively minuscule Rice. Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes also gives New England two very good inside linebackers capable off stuffing rushing lanes, so this battle will be key to the outcome of the contest.Through the air, Flacco will be sure to target Smith with the deep ball as the dread locked wideout has averaged 17.2 yards per catch this season, a ridiculously high number that could lead to the Patriots giving corner back Aqib Talib help when covering the Ravens number one threat. Dennis Pitta and Anquan Boldin are reliable possession receivers, so Smith is by no means the Ravens only threat. When it’s all said and done the Ravens usually perform on offense when their QB does, and after last weeks breakout performance Flacco will want to prove it was no fluke. He has all the tools of an elite QB and with his upcoming free agency each good play means more money when he hits the open market.
When New England has the ball..
The Patriots have so many weapons, even without Rob Gronkowski, that it’s difficult to key in on one player in order to stop them. With Brady pulling the strings they’re able to spread the ball around to the likes of TE Aaron Hernandez and WR Wes Welker and let them make yards after the catch. Passes rarely travel a long way in the air in this offense and shifty players like Welker suit it perfectly as they’re able to extend a short dump off into a significant gain. Baltimore has struggled at times this season on defense because mainstay’s such as Ray Lewis and Ed Reed have lost a step. However, they’re still functional and know how to win which is an invaluable intangible to have. Darnell Ellerbe has turned into a very good inside linebacker for the Ravens and Terrell Suggs is still a pass rushing force off the edge, not to mention dynamic nose tackle Haloti Ngata. All in all there are enough good players on this defensive unit to at least keep Brady and the Pats in some kind of check, although it wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if New England were able to score 30, maybe 35 points on Sunday.
New England looked like the best team in the league last Sunday by blowing out the Texans whilst Baltimore scraped past the Broncos. However that game was in Denver against the conference’s number one seed, so the Ravens deserve props just for getting here. Unfortunately I think it’s as far as they’ll go as they just don’t have the speed on defense to keep the high flying Pats offense in check. Joe Flacco may well keep it close into the second half but ultimately I just don’t think the likes of Lewis and Reed have enough left in the tank to take Baltimore to the big game in New Orleans. Ravens 27, Patriots 38
I’ll be back with my NFC Championship game preview before Sunday night, so keep checking in for that and feel free to post your predictions for the games in the comments section.